BENGHAZI, Libya -- The scope of Moammar Gadhafi's rule in Libya was whittled away Wednesday as major cities and towns closer to the capital fell into the hands of protesters demanding his ouster. In Libya's east, now all but broken away, the opposition vowed to "liberate" Tripoli, where the Libyan leader is holed up with a force of militiamen roaming the streets.
In a further sign of Gadhafi's faltering hold, two air force pilots -- one from the leader's own tribe -- parachuted out of their warplane and let it crash into the deserts of eastern Libya, rather than follow orders to bomb a opposition-held city.
International momentum was building for action to punish Gadhafi's regime for the bloody crackdown it has unleashed against the week-old uprising against his rule. The White House said it is reviewing options to compel Libya to stop violence, including sanctions. French President Nicolas Sarkozy raised the possibility of the EU cutting off economic ties.
Italy's Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said estimates of some 1,000 people killed in the violence in Libya were "credible," although he stressed information about casualties was incomplete. The New York-based Human Rights Watch has put the death toll at nearly 300, according to a partial count.
In Tripoli, Gadhafi's stronghold, protest organizers were calling for new rallies Thursday and Friday, raising the potential for a new bloody confrontation.
Militiamen and Gadhafi supporters -- a mix of Libyans and foreign African fighters bused in -- roamed the capital's main streets, called up by the Libyan leader in a fist-pounding speech the night before in which he vowed to fight to the death. The gunmen fired weapons in the air, chanting "long live Gadhafi" and waving green flags. With a steady rain all day long, streets were largely empty, residents said.
In many neighborhoods, residents set up watch groups to keep militiamen out, barricading their streets with concrete blocks, metal and rocks and searching those trying to enter, said a Tripoli activist.
Gadhafi's residence at Tripoli's Aziziya Gates was guarded by loyalists along with a line of armed militiamen in vehicles, some masked, he said. The radio station building downtown was also heavily fortified. In one western neighborhood, security forces stormed several homes and arrested three or four people, a witnesses said.